Part Of The Picture: Death by Sleeplessness

Posted on March 19, 2010


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MAR 20, 2010 – IN THIS FIFTH AND FINAL OSCAR-NOMINATED FEATURE, a bespectacled grey-haired man, known as “Shampoo Negriz,” walks up to three youths sitting in the street in the Ajami neighbourhood of Jaffa. The greetings are courteous, the sort exchanged between passers-by within the same province who know one another by face if not by name. After hellos and handshakes, when asked how things are, Negriz comes to the point. “Not so good, actually.” The others want to know why, what’s wrong. Negriz shakes his head and sighs, “I haven’t slept in three days… These sheep and this zoo… It’s driving me nuts.” One of the youths, who presumably owns these animals, explains, “It’s Jacko the cock. He’s under stress.” Negriz repeats, “Listen, it’s been three weeks…” Another youth pipes up, “When you came here and I told you that they make noise once a year, you believed me?” Negriz says, “Yes. Am I a farmer?”

The façade of neighbourly bonhomie begins to peel and crack under the strain of loud livestock. A youth demands, “A sheep bleats once a year?” Negriz shoots back, “Am I a vet?” The youth shrugs, “That’s the way sheep are.” Negriz has begun to have enough. He warns, “Okay, I may seem like a goldfish, but I’m a shark.” The youths don’t take this threat any more seriously than we do, considering Negriz’s mild-mannered presence, but he continues, “I’ve already checked everything with the municipality. According to the law, you can’t raise animals here.” The youth yells, “Cut the fish talk. Am I a fisherman?” Negriz interrupts, “Listen…” But the youth won’t listen, and he mumbles, “Screwing my head with the municipality. According to your laws we shouldn’t be here at all. Don’t piss me off with your laws.” The others are enjoying this dispute. Their faces are alight with wide grins.

Negriz lights a cigarette as the youth continues, “In Jaffa, there’s no municipality. Not for me. It exists only in your Tel Aviv.” Negriz sticks to his one-note agenda. “Listen, those sheep are out of here or else…” The youth retaliates, “No, you’re out of here.” The exchange becomes more concise, more combative. “Really?” “Yes.” “Let’s see.” “Let’s see you try.” A youth reaches out to his friend, the one who’s been arguing with Negriz, and says, “Enough, he’s an older man.” But Negriz doesn’t want these concessions. “Enough!” “You think I’m a wimp?” “Go home.” “Don’t push me.” “Enough.” “Go home” “No, I’m not.” “Go home.” By now, everyone is standing, and the two youths who’ve been watching from the sidelines attempt to come between their friend and Negriz. One of them instructs the other, “Take him inside,” and he turns to Negriz. “Come on, we’re neighbours…” Negriz is beyond consolation. He pounces on this mediator, “I haven’t slept in three weeks.”

And now, the mediator loses it. He stares back at Negriz and demands, “So what?” And now, they begin to volley words. “You think I’m a wimp.” “You’re the king of wimps.” “Motherfucker, who do you think you are?” “We’ll have you for breakfast.” The so-far stationary camera begins to weave around this quartet, as if ducking for dear life in the face of a simple argument that’s escalated into a street fight, with a clutch of arms and bodies making it difficult to discern who’s doing what to whom – especially now that more people have either joined the fight or are trying to prevent it. And then, someone plunges a knife into Negriz’s chest. As the older man falls, there are more cries. “What have you done?” “What have you done?” Run!” Run!” The crowd scatters. All that’s left on the street is the writhing figure of Negriz.

The next scene, we see a young women sobbing beside Negriz. “Daddy,” she cries, as a police car approaches, siren blaring. Cops in plainclothes alight and race to the twosome at the centre of the street. One of them ushers the daughter away, as the other two try to make sense of the scenario. “What happened?” “A stabbing.” A cop bends and breathes into Negriz’s mouth as a second police car arrives. The daughter wails from a distance, “I want to tell him something. I want to talk to him.” Next morning, inside a cozy home, a television reporter reads out, “In a place of poverty, despair and drug gangs, a gun or a knife are easy to draw. Last night, the victim was a father of three.” And thus ends yet another day of unrest in the Middle East, yet another powder keg of simmering tensions ignited not by political beliefs or religious differences, but by a man who couldn’t sleep because a neighbour’s sheep wouldn’t stop bleating.

Ajami (2009, Arabic, Hebrew; aka Russoun). Directed by Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani. Starring Fouad Habash, Shahir Kabaha, Eran Naim.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign